When the COVID-19 pandemic brought life on campus to a halt in early 2020, the Notre Dame Alumni Association — like every department — found itself adjusting on the fly.
With planning for the annual Reunion in June already well underway, Director of Special Events Erin Thornton and her team quickly switched gears, swapping the on-campus gathering for a more subdued commemoration with Masses offered for each milestone class premiering on YouTube. In addition, the association sent customized Grotto candles, blessed by University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., to members of the Class of 1970 on the occasion of their 50th Reunion celebration.
Less anticipated was the need to repeat the process in 2021.
Though the University welcomed students back last fall, pandemic relief was slow and precautions such as mask-wearing and limitations on the number of people who could gather in one place remained in effect as the spring semester began in February. That’s when the Alumni Association began planning for a virtual observance of Reunion 2021, a 90-minute production featuring conversations with University leaders, musical performances, campus retrospectives and interviews with notable alumni.
“The biggest difference between this year and last was having the runway to do something like this,” said Assistant Director of Engagement Marketing Chris Palmquist, who took the lead on production for the event. A former local sports anchor and 2013 Notre Dame graduate, Palmquist also produced the association’s virtual Football Fridays shows last fall.
“So much was uncertain in 2020 as the latest news and guidance related to COVID-19 changed so quickly, and we had no idea when we would have to pull the plug,” he said. “This year, we knew there would be some disappointment when we cancelled the on-campus event, but we were able to put together a quality program in the end.”
Regular planning meetings were used to brainstorm segments that were shorter and would appeal to a wide audience ranging from the Class of 2016 to the 50-Year Club, which includes any alumni who graduated at least five decades ago. The team invited notable guests who were celebrating their own Reunion in 2020 or 2021, including Olympian and 2006 alumna Molly Huddle, former Irish wide receiver and 1996 graduate Derrick Mayes, Domer Dozen honorees, and a group of friends from the Class of 1961 who still style themselves as the “Rat Pack.” Additionally, Palmquist repurposed existing short videos such as student musical performances and a feature on campus through the years with University architect Doug Marsh.
Thornton was well aware that a virtual program could not replace a traditional celebration, nor did she want to try to replicate one with multiple days of programming. To complement the production, which streamed live on YouTube and Facebook on June 3, the Alumni Association instead provided digital “gifts” — such as contemporary campus maps and editions of The Observer — in each class community on myNotreDame, as well as virtual Masses for the 2021 celebrating classes.
While Thornton, Palmquist and the rest of the Alumni Association look forward to Reunion festivities returning to campus in 2022, they hope to take with them the lessons from their forays into digital engagements.
"Watching the final product along with our alumni was really amazing,” Thornton said. “Reunions are a time for gathering, remembering and celebrating. I think we achieved that in a new way this year, and I look forward to how we can carry these kinds of ideas forward even after we return to in-person events."